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A Course in Christian Mysticism Paperback – July 31, 2017
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About the Author
Thomas Merton (1915-1968), Catholic convert, Cistercian monk and hermit, poet, contemplative, social critic, and pioneer of interreligious dialogue, was a seminal figure of twentieth-century American Christianity.
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Merton's presentations are erudite and insightful. He clearly had a good grasp of Christianity as a lived experience and knew what to emphasize in mystical theology to benefit the young charges under his care. The reader will also get a sense of Merton's own spiritual life in reading the material, as I doubt he would have passed on untried and untested wisdom. His literary training is clear in his heavy reliance on scripture and God as Word. The biblical text is an essential foundation for the mystical life. Merton does not shy away from traditional "Bridal Mysticism" and discusses at considerable length Saint Bernard's commentaries on the Song of Songs. Many of the conferences support the apophatic tradition and the rigors of ascetical life, seeking the purification of the soul, but Merton carefully avoids gnostic dualism, providing considerable direction on the notion of "theoria physike," which asserts the inherent goodness of the material world. While his monastic spirituality is essentially interior, Merton is never so abstract to exclude activity in the phenomenal world. The senses and their analogs as spiritual senses receive more discussion than I expected. It is clear Merton had some experience with liminal empiricism, a borderland in the soul that includes the senses and passions, requiring the transformation of base activities to more sublime and pnuematic engagements. Merton places a strong emphasis on the inner workings of the Holy Spirit and a communion of wills (man and God's) that requires abandoning ego for a Christ-like identity.
Probably, the one thing that impressed me the most about Merton's conferences was his sense of balance. Merton never goes half-cocked into extremes. To borrow a term from Chinese philosophy, it is a perspective of "the mean," a sensible "pivot," permitting a broad embrace of nature and reality. Psychology and metaphysics exist in harmony, seeking a transformation of affectivity and moral character. Merton's understanding of mysticism is almost obsessively anti-Quietist. Passive, certainly, but never a dead weight. Though entirely contemplative in its dynamic, it is never divorced from activity or permits the "really-real" to founder in dissociation.
This book is highly recommended.